Transit 101: How to Read a Bus Schedule

Backpacking friends in check map for their next journey route
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While the advent of transit apps and Google Transit has reduced the need to read a bus schedule, it is still an essential skill for anyone who wants to use public transit. But timetables, whether printed or online, can be confusing. Whether you are trying to make your way to and from an airport, are vacationing in a new spot, or are trying to make your way across town for work, these tips will have you easily navigating your way around any city in no time.

Timetable Basics

There are two basic parts of a bus schedule, the map and the list of times for a particular route. Make sure you have the correct schedule for your destination, and then review the map to locate both your start and end point, noting the route or routes that serve those locations. After you determine what routes you need to ride, locate the individual route schedule(s) in the transit guide or select the right pocket timetable. 

Reading the Map

Almost all transit timetables include a map of the route for which the times are presented. Routes on maps are usually differentiated by color, and may also include a series of symbols representing the set times that the bus is scheduled to wait at certain locations along the route. The first step in your trip is to select the closest bus stop from which you will depart. This is known as a time point, and it is the location that is nearest to you that is also on your route.

Time points are usually denoted by a description of the stop, i.e., a mall, plaza, street, or geographical feature.

Reading the Timetable

After you determine your closest time point, proceed to the section of the schedule that lists departure times. Almost all timetables are horizontally oriented. That is, times and routes go across the page, left to right, rather than down from top to bottom. Usually, a different set of times is provided for weekdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, so be sure to focus on the part of the schedule that corresponds to the day you are traveling. After you select the day you want to depart, determine if you are going east, west, north, or south of your current location and select the right table accordingly (in some cases the words inbound or outbound are used instead of departure and arrival). Select the time point closest to your destination, find the time closest to your desired arrival time, and then work backward to the left along the same row to find the time at your closest embarkation time point. This is the time you need to be at your starting stop. 

Be sure to note any timetable exceptions and read when they apply in the notes at the bottom. The most common exceptions are trips that only operate when school is in session and trips that only operate on Saturday, Sunday, or both.

Other Considerations

If you have to transfer to a different route, then consult the timetable for the other route, locate the place where the two routes meet, and then look at the closest time point for each route to determine how long your wait will be. Often transit agencies will offer timed transfer opportunities at major transit centers.

Letters or numbers are often assigned to each time point as a way to help patrons connect the time points on the map with the time points on the timetable.

It is important to note that buses will only observe the times listed as time points. They will often arrive late, but should never leave early. Sometimes automated schedule information will provide times for stops in between time points, but these times are estimated times only.

Also be aware that not all trips may serve the entire route. Trips that only cover part of a route are called short-turn trips; if your destination lays outside the section of the route a short-turn trip covers then wait for the next full-length trip.

In addition to the map and timetable, schedules often include fare information and a phone number to call for further information.